Ah, the sun. Giver of life. Grower of crops. Sworn enemy of the MLB Playoffs on TBS. For Cardinals fans watching their team begin a championship defense, and for Nationals fans watching their first playoff game ever, yesterday's broadcast was a frustrating one. On multiple occasions, TBS's feed froze—or went blank altogether. People were pissed, even if they didn't realize the problem was on TBS's end rather than their crappy cable companies (all cable companies are crappy). Turner was quick to put out a statement:
At first glance, that sounds like a cop-out. Oh, your broadcast stopped because it's autumn? But it turns out that a "sun outage" is actually a real atmospheric phenomenon, one that happens twice a year.
Every satellite, including Turner's beaming you the hottest NLDS action, is directly over the equator. That's called a geosynchronous orbit, and it makes sure the satellite is in the same spot above the Earth's surface all the time. That's why you can watch Married With Children TBS at 5 a.m. But here in the northern hemisphere, a funny thing happens slightly slightly after the fall equinox (and slightly before the spring): the sun, just south of the equatorial plane, is in a direct line with the satellite and your house.
Think of it like when someone's taking your picture, but the sun is directly behind you and the photo comes out all washed out and crappy.
Actually, don't think of it like that. (I am not a scientist.) Think of it like your satellite dish (or your cable company's receiver) pointing toward the Turner satellite, but also pointing directly toward the sun. It doesn't like this.
The sun's thermal energy is strong enough to temporarily interfere with the satellite signal and cause an outage as it approaches direct alignment. Each day as the sun moves further north, the sun's alignment with the satellite and earth station move ever so slightly. As the sun becomes more aligned with the satellite and the earth station on the ground, the outage duration increases. Peak outage time occurs when the sun, satellite and the earth station are exactly aligned with each other. The interference declines gradually as the sun starts moving away from the satellite and earth station alignment, until it is no longer a factor—until the next interference season when the sun starts heading south (northern hemispheric in autumn).
Sun outages happen every year, and affect every network, but we only notice them when they bother us during a widely watched event like the playoffs. So what can be done? Nothing, unless America works up the political will to blow up the sun. But we're a spineless nation rapidly falling behind in the sciences, so don't say you weren't warned when China and India beat us to it.